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Flexing the Biomimicry Muscle

5/10/2005 12:00:00 AM

Tags: biomimicry

This week a friend sent me a link to an article in The Oregonian that rocked my world. “OSU’s new wood glue has muscle inspired by mussels” tells of Oregon State University professor Kaichang Li’s invention, an soy-based adhesive that can be used as a safe replacement for formaldehyde-based glues in plywood and particleboard.

For years, we natural-building types have been warning people about the evils of formaldehyde—a known carcinogen that outgases into the home and can cause a host of nasty health problems. Yet green builders and forestry types also know that wood products such as particleboard—which utilize smaller (read, not old growth) trees and wood scraps—can go a long way toward preserving our forests. Often we’ve been forced to choose between saving the trees or protecting our own health. As the particleboard debate has raged (even within the pages of Natural Home & Garden), I just kept thinking, “There’s got to be a better way.” And now there is—or soon will be.

Columbia Forest Products will stop using formaldehyde and start using the soy-based adhesives in its plywood panels within a year. Brad Thompson of Columbia Forest Products says this is the first cost-competitive formaldehyde-free adhesive to hit the market. Revolution is afoot.

But maybe just as cool is the process through which Professor Li discovered and then created this stuff—an awesome example of Janine Benyus’s biomimicry concept. Li took inspiration from mussels, which use a network of tough silken threads made out of a special protein to secure themselves to rocks and wood pilings—even in the face of massive waves. One day while eating tofu, he realized the ubiquitous soybean contain lots of protein, just like those threads. He put two and two together, and volià! It’s just another great example of how—with a little help from Mother Nature—we can easily create safe, cheap, and healthy ways to live better lives.

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